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Billund's Playline: Capital of Children

My first day of research for my Churchill Fellowship -- and a day spent touring the 'Playline' in Billund, home of Lego Foundation, and the Capital of Children, two of the partners behind this play-on-the-way wayfinding. Wait PLAYFINDING?..

This day was an exploration of so many of the key talking points I come to when discussing active urbanism -- and so I wanted to share this as list of first thoughts and questions for discussion.

Managing risk

In the centre image, a wooden 'icicle' hanging by a thick magnetic screw dangles above my daughters head as I prepare to tug a pulley that will release the magnet and see the wooden stake fall to the ground (or anything in the way). It as reaction game, the idea is that you catch the block but which will fall is masterminded by an unseen friend. It was a lot of fun, my 3yo research assistant pulled the leavers for me to play the game myself and then insisted she have a go, and we, and she took steps to make sure she could play (she never really got close). I just can't imagine this being made available free to use in a public space in the U.K. can you? Have you seen anything like this?

My research assistant did come 'a cropper' on the stone to the right, but it was less of a problem than when she fell off the bed yesterday. I found myself climbing this sculpture, this one was designed for that (see below) but its also legal to climb many public buildings, bridges and art works in Denmark. I know 'buildering' exists in the UK, but its a far more clandestine activity than over here.

Invitations to play

'Play on the grass' that speaks for itself, but this invitation to play is of great importance. We've had so long being told to stay off the grass and not play ball games, that it takes positive signage to redress this societal inbalance. It need not be so blatant though, these huge 'Mikado' sticks were introduced to the Playline in May 2020.

"As a citizen of Billund, the vast majority have moved on all or parts of Playline several times. Some have been well aware that they were on the Playline, while others have not known of the route's existence. The signs should change that... should help to create an understanding that Playline is a coherent route" said project manager Mette Vagner Rasmussen.

The final image shows an invitation to spend time in the public space, and relax, which is just as important.

Schools as public spaces

Schools are massively under-utilised assets in our communities in the U.K. There are sports facilties, kitchens, classrooms, meeting spaces almost of which are heavily under-utlised out-of-school hours, or charged out at prices that often makes one question its true value as 'community use'. Here in Denmark, as I've witnessed in Finland and the Netherlands, school grounds are open to children (and adults) to play on when they are not at school. There are a thousand reasons why the status quo in the U.K. will be defended -- not least of which will again be our old friend 'risk' but take a closer look at the centre picture, thats a fire pit!

Seating around MUGAs

A concrete pitch with social seating in Utrecht, Netherlands
A concrete pitch with social seating in Utrecht, Netherlands

Also a little detail, but one I think makes a massive difference. Look at the MUGA in the picture on the left, it is overlooked by a couple rows on blocks as informal seating. I've seen a similar set up in a park in Utrecht and I fondly remember sitting in a eating gyros and drinking cheap wine in a public square in Athens where steps and floodlights around a couple of open basketball courts clearly provided a social spot for the neighbourhoods teenage community.

Take to the rooftops

You don't lose space, you just move it upwards. One day I'll get around to producing a blog on the active rooftops of China, which would definitely be a focus for me, if I were ever lucky enough to travel there. I even wrote a proposal like this into the playing pitch strategy for Birmingham for MUGAs on the roof -- though I've no evidence of it actually having been acted on -- anyone else?

Free to access opportunities around paid facilities

Lego House isn't a cheap ticket, but you can play on the roofs for free, and there's a bring your own indoor picnic site within the building. Here at Lalandia -- another Bilund tourist attraction -- underneath the paid for high wire adventure facility there were free-to-use trampolines, bouncy castles, teqball -- which I was rubbish at -- and swingball -- which should be in more public spaces! This isn't a typical site, but I'd like to see more examples of free-to-access activities in public spaces near more traditional sport facilties, as a first-step or accessible gateway activity.

Activation and the Built Environment

Not one or the other. Here next to the climbable 'Play Contract' art works, that designed through co-creation with 121 children of Bilund and 100,000 pink lego bricks is a fun 'colour' run as part of the town's 'festival'. Adults and children of all ages were running the Playline, and activities are regularly held on and around this route.

Sculpture as an invitation to play

As I mentioned, a lot of sculpture can be climbed in Denmark, the piece on the left is literally called 'three play sculptures', the benches in the middle, we were pretty sure were designed for clambering, and 'Play Contract' by Superflex, the artist group behind Superkilen and One, Two, Three, Swing was definitely built with climbing in mind. As you saw earlier I had a go at reaching some of the higher steps, while my 3ft research assistant was happy with exploring the archways below -- one was proclaimed her house, another her castle. A great examples of interaction with art that stimulates physical as well as mental imagination.

More on sculpture and art as invitiations to play

Tomorrow I head to Copenhagen -- subscribe to this blog to hear more.

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